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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Act 2003 (Consequential Modifications No. 2)Order 2003

Third Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation

Tuesday 11 November 2003

[David Taylor in the Chair]

Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections
and Periods of Suspension) Act 2003
(Consequential Modifications No. 2)
Order 2003

2.30 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. John Spellar): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Act 2003 (Consequential Modifications No. 2) Order 2003 (S.I., 2003, No. 2752).

The order is compatible with the European convention on human rights and is being made in exercise of the powers conferred by section 6 of the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Act 2003.

I apologise for the late addition of the order and for the fact that, despite our having debated three orders last week, I am here to ask the Committee to agree a fourth order in connection with the Northern Ireland Assembly election on 26 November. The Electoral Commission strongly recommends the measure to cover any eventuality, no matter how unlikely, in respect of candidates' expenditure. It only made the proposal at the last moment and is apologetic for the late notice—and so it should be.

I do not propose to keep the Committee for long. This purely technical order was made on 29 October under the urgency procedure. It modifies section 118A(2) of the Representation of the People Act 1983 as it is applied to Northern Ireland Assembly elections by the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001 in connection with provision made under section 1 of the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Act 2003.

The effect is to ensure that the election expenses of individual candidates in relation to the forthcoming Assembly election are regulated in accordance with the statutory regime, so that candidates have no doubt about their compliance in respect of their election expenses. It also ensures that there is clarity about when a person becomes a candidate for the purposes of the election.

I thank the Committee for taking the time and trouble to consider the order.

2.32 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): As the Minister says, this is largely a technical measure, introduced on the recommendation of the Electoral Commission. The Conservatives have no problem supporting it. As it is the first time that I have spoken since taking on my new responsibilities less than a day ago, I should like to add that I very much hope that the order and

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the previous statutory instruments that have been considered will enable a successful Assembly election to take place, and that, once that election is behind us, the devolved institutions will be able to run with the support of all the communities in the Province.

2.33 pm

Lady Hermon (North Down): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Taylor. Hon. Members find Northern Ireland legislation so exciting that they always turn up in droves. I welcome the new addition to this Committee, the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington). I hope that his days of involvement in Northern Ireland business will be long, and I pay tribute to his predecessor, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), with whom I rarely agreed, but who had a certain curiosity and courtesy about him. He is a character—and I mean that as a compliment.

My saying only a few brief words on the order would not be in keeping with my record. I was particularly struck by the attention given in another place last evening to three Northern Ireland orders, including this one. I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that the debate on those orders began at 8.17 pm, at column 1174, and finished at 8.19 pm. If we are to be fair to the people of Northern Ireland—1.7 million citizens of the United Kingdom—it ill behoves us to act at such a pace or debate the order with such haste. [Interruption.] With that encouraging groan—the hon. Member who uttered it shall remain nameless—I shall continue.

I have to tell the Minister of State that last week I was disappointed. I asked on two separate occasions why the Government and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had chosen to lay the order before the House late on the evening of 21 October, when by 4 pm on the same day it was clear to all that the planned and anticipated sequence of events had unravelled to a huge extent. Why did the Government throw away any leverage that they had to ensure transparency of decommissioning? The Minister of State now has the chance to end my bitter disappointment and shed light on the Secretary of State's reasoning and rationale.

While the Minister of State is contemplating his reply to that question, I ask him to explain to the Committee—and to the people of Northern Ireland—why the poll is to be held on 26 November, which is also the date of the state opening of Parliament. He will know that members of the various Unionist parties in Northern Ireland and some members of my party who may be without the whip are standing as candidates for the Ulster Unionist party. They obviously wish to be present for the state opening on 26 November. What thought has been given to the logistics of right hon. and hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies both being present for the state opening and taking part in the election? The logistics are fraught, and it would help if the Minister shed some light on the subject.

I would appreciate clarification on election expenses. We have been given an explanation of why the order is being considered separately. However,

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those who want to be candidates must have shown an interest by 30 October 2003. I was intrigued to find that nominations for election to the Assembly opened on Monday 3 November and closed the following day. What was the reason for choosing 30 October as a cut-off point when nomination papers could be lodged only on 3 or 4 November?

Finally—I am sorry to disappoint the Committee by using that word—I wish to record the thanks of my colleagues in the Ulster Unionist party to Mr. Jonathan Powell, who came to Hillsborough castle on Sunday 26 October, following the sequence of unravelling events on 21 October. He tried valiantly, displaying the characteristic optimism and enthusiasm that he always shows for all Northern Ireland matters. I thank him for the time that he spent trying to come to an arrangement that suited all parties and would have allowed us to move forward. It was greatly appreciated.

I know that the Committee was disappointed when I said, ''finally'', but this is indeed my final point. I remind the Minister that although the election will take place in November and the slogan ''Apathy rules, OK'' is going round, we do not often experience voter apathy in Northern Ireland. We certainly did not the last time we had an election. Quite the opposite from the experience in the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland enjoys the difficulty, if I may put it like that, of getting the doors of polling stations closed come 10 o'clock. After the last general election there was a fraught challenge to the result in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, which arose precisely because the polling station was kept open owing to the number of—

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): Postal votes.

Lady Hermon: Not postal votes, but live voters who came to the polling station and were allowed in after polling finished at 10 o'clock. That gave rise to a fraught legal case, in which the judge in his summing up described the pressure that was put on members of the police service in trying to look after—

The Chairman: Order. I am reluctant to interrupt the hon. Lady, but she is straying a little beyond the scope of the order.

Lady Hermon: I apologise for going beyond the scope of the debate. This is the final chance that we shall have to discuss what will be a crucial election in Northern Ireland, so I hope that the Minister will confirm that there will be a sufficient police presence at polling stations. I seek clarification, since we are discussing a crucial Assembly election.

2.41 pm

Mr. Carmichael: I echo the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) in welcoming the hon. Member for Aylesbury to debates on Northern Ireland business. He has a reputation in the House for rational good thinking in his dealings, which might provide something of a contrast to the unique style that his predecessor, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, brought to our debates. I note with regret, however, that the list published yesterday by the Leader of the Opposition reveals that we are to be

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deprived of the Taylor tests, which will leave our business much the poorer.

I, too, have little objection to the order, although I have two questions for the Minister. First, if individuals promoted themselves as candidates prior to 30 October, will the expenses they incurred in relation to that promotion not be considered part of their electoral expenses, notwithstanding the fact that they incurred them as candidates? Secondly, when the elections of 29 May this year were postponed, parties in Northern Ireland were told that they would be reimbursed for the electoral expenses incurred. Can the Minister say what progress has been made in that respect?

2.42 pm

Mr. Spellar: I thank the hon. Member for Aylesbury for his constructive and brief comments, although I shall go no further in praising him, as it might severely damage his future prospects if I were to do so. We welcome him to his post, although we shall miss the unique style of the hon. Members for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) and for Grantham and Stamford.

I was slightly worried when the hon. Member for North Down said that she was going to detain us for a considerable period—perhaps she wanted to avoid canvassing—but, fortunately, she concentrated on the details. She talked about apathy, which reminded me of a previous Northern Ireland Minister, Willie Whitelaw, who once accused people of going round the country stirring up apathy. There is a danger in that respect: despite its higher turnouts over the years, Northern Ireland has experienced the general trend of decline that has occurred elsewhere. We must all be concerned about that, and I hope that we shall take every opportunity in the next two weeks to encourage a high level of participation in the election. That will be enormously important for the Assembly and the formation of a new Executive.

The hon. Lady asked why we had called the election. I thought that I had dealt with that extensively, albeit perhaps not to her satisfaction, in a previous Committee, when I stated our belief that, although the necessary degree of public confidence had not been achieved, we should recognise that progress had been made. We had done all that we could to help the parties to achieve a more positive atmosphere for the elections, and we would take urgent steps to bring about the agreement that had eluded us. Finally, notwithstanding all those things, the Government judged that it was right to proceed with the elections. On the question of the date—26 November—I pointed out that, given the prolonged nature of counts in some constituencies, our aim was to complete the count by the weekend. That was partly because it would enable discussions to take place, but partly because we had in mind the fact that, with the short period of notice of elections and the fact that it was getting close to Christmas, many potential staff would already have weekend commitments. I had hoped that I had satisfied the Committee in that respect.

I shall convey the hon. Lady's kind comments about the work undertaken by Mr. Jonathan Powell.

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The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) asked about the expenses that had been incurred in respect of the aborted election. I am advised that the political parties' expenses have been paid. I understand also that the trigger date for the expenses of candidates who had already declared their candidacy is 30 October. The reason for the gap is that a number of candidates had already declared themselves, so, understandably, the Electoral Commission required a date to be fixed, so that it could be clear about its reporting obligations. It had to consider those who became candidates in the intervening period, and the date of nomination. The gap is slight, but for the sake of completeness, we have

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two dates—one to clarify the position of those who are already candidates, and the other to ensure a cut-off date for nomination, with a short space between the two.

I think that that deals with the points that have been raised and I commend the order to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Act 2003 (Consequential Modifications No. 2) Order 2003 (S.I., 2003, No. 2752).

Committee rose at twelve minutes to Three o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Taylor, David (Chairman)
Carmichael, Mr.
Coaker, Mr.
Davis, Mr.
Donohoe, Mr.
Harris, Mr. Tom
Henderson, Mr. Doug
Hermon, Lady
Luke, Mr.
Mackay, Mr.
Reed, Mr.
Spellar, Mr.
Thomas, Gareth
Watkinson, Angela

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Lidington, Mr. David (Aylesbury)

 
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Prepared 11 November 2003